Powerful interests on all sides of the issue have wasted no time weighing in on the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling upholding the right of government to use the power of eminent domain to spur economic development.
Builders, developers, urban mayors, smart-growth advocates and others have hailed the 5-4 ruling as a major victory for taxpayers, whose burdens will henceforth be relieved by the addition of big, bright, shiny new ratables to the tax base. Moreover, the quality of life will improve dramatically as badly neglected neighborhoods are transformed into attractive new developments that lure people — and money — back from the affluent suburbs.
Libertarians, homeowners' associations, virtually every blog on the Internet and a slew of Washington-based nonprofits, including a surprising number of environmental groups, are appalled. For all practical purposes, they say, the Supreme Court has destroyed the very concept of private property rights. The ruling has all but invited local government officials to send in the bulldozers and start knocking down private homes owned by people they happen not to like, and replace them with ones constructed by powerful interests who contribute to their political campaigns.
While our personal favorite in the vitriol department was this sarcastic mock headline culled from the Internet — "D.C. Mayor to Bulldoze Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Home for Homeless Shelter" — most of the criticism has lacked both cleverness and humor. Instead, the New London, Conn., case has occasioned another of those ideological outbursts that have a way of generating a lot more heat than light. And, in the process, both sides have greatly oversimplified the likely effects of the ruling.
For example, nobody should expect our cities to suddenly rise from the ashes, or overburdened property-taxpayers to enjoy overnight relief, because local governments will be inspired by this ruling to start invoking the power of eminent domain. In many states, local governments do not have this power; in others, there are very explicit limits on its use. More important, in the real world, the circumstances that warrant the use of this power are extremely limited — it is for this reason that local governments, in fact, rarely employ it.
On the other hand, the notion that local government might now go out and start invoking this power, willy-nilly, to promote private development is preposterous. Both the majority opinion and Justice Anthony Kennedy's concurring opinion made clear that this power may not be used simply to help a private developer, that it must be part of a comprehensive redevelopment plan in which the public interest is paramount.
In some cases, such a plan cannot be carried out without eminent domain. Baltimore had to use it to build its Inner Harbor. New York couldn't have revitalized Times Square without it. But in other cases, eminent domain isn't necessary for economic development to occur, and government is wise not to exercise it.
Will the Supreme Court decision have an impact? Absolutely. Will it be a major impact? We suspect not.
Windsor-Hights Herald: www.windsorhightsherald.com